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What Can You Say When a Friend Faces a Recurrence?

I was checking my inbox the other day and found a disturbing email. The subject line on the email simply said, "It's back." I knew immediately what that meant. 

The sender of the email was a friend I'd never had the pleasure of meeting in person. Instead, we'd found each other through a breast cancer website. Shortly after we were diagnosed, as fate would have it, our paths crossed. 

We shared so many similarities. Both diagnosed in the same year, we had the same type cancer, the same stage, and the same grade. We were both mothers although my children were grown and hers were not. We shared a love of similar interests and hobbies.

Instantly, as we corresponded, we clicked. 

Through our online blogs, we were able to compare notes and keep up with each others lives. It was fun reading about each other and felt almost like I had an adopted sister. Our relationship was special. And that's why I felt so helpless when I learned, through the email, that her cancer had returned. 

What could I say that wouldn't sound trite? Of course, I was sorry to learn of the news but I wanted to express my heartfelt sentiments. Since our cancer experiences had been so similar, I could almost feel the way she'd probably responded when she received the news. I imagined she felt like I would've if the shoe had been on the other foot. I would have been devastated and confused. My heart went out to her. 

Reading her blog, as she began treatment again, I learned more about her feelings. Not only did she feel betrayed by the return of cancer, she was angry.  I completely understood. And when she began to blame herself for possibly not doing something right, I knew why she felt that way, too. 

My heart broke as she told about having to go through chemotherapy again. It didn't seem fair. Hadn't she given enough the first time around? 

But with cancer, there is no fairness, there are no rules. 

What do we say when someone we love faces a recurrence of cancer? And how can a fellow survivor express compassion and empathy in a genuine way? 

One of the best things we can do is listen. Words aren't always necessary to express caring. Often, an understanding look, or a tender touch can convey the heart's deepest sentiments. 

But if words need to be shared, they should be carefully chosen. A person might say, "I'm sorry. I know this isn't what you were expecting." Or "I'm here for you, just let me know what I can do to help." 

By offering the gift of understanding to the person facing recurrence, validation occurs.

When you aren't sure what to say, it's best to say nothing at all.  

A cancer recurrence rarely comes with notice, but when the surprise comes, it makes a big difference for the person with cancer to have a support team in place. 

As I read my friend’s blog for daily updates, one thing appears in every post – evidence of her warrior spirit and personal bravery. Though she’s having to fight this war again, I know she’ll give it her all, the same way she did the first time around.

It’s challenging to cheer her on from the sidelines, but I can always lift her up in prayer, send her encouraging notes, or post supportive comments on her blog. And in so doing, I hope she’ll know I stand with her because I know she’d do the same for me should I ever face a recurrence. 

That's what we do in the world of cancer, because we've been there and we know how it feels to hear the words, you have cancer, for the first time or at any time thereafter. 


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